Shaky presidency

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 November, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 November, 1994, 12:00am

A NUMBER of factors lie behind the Republicans' landslide victory in this week's mid-term elections in the United States, but of more interest internationally is what lies ahead. The way President Bill Clinton deals with a Congress that is not only hostile - it always was - but controlled by the Republicans will affect the everyday lives of Americans, while the whole world could be affected if Mr Clinton has difficulty adapting to his underdog status.

The most striking fact about the election results is that they point to a growing unsophistication among voters. The party loyalty that once characterised American politics now appears to be giving way to a casual boredom and constant hunger for novelty that would be harmless if it were only a factor in TV programming, but is alarming when applied to the process of picking the world's top policeman and his cohorts.

This listlessness goes by the impressive description 'anti-incumbency', but there is nothing impressive about the implications. The fact the sinister Ross Perot became a major player in the last presidential election before his campaign imploded was alarming; the victors in gubernatorial races in New York and Texas were also rich unknowns, while the losers were Mario Cuomo and Ann Richards, both major national politicians. Perhaps American politics have entered a new era.

All this sets the stage for the second half of the Clinton presidency. Lying ahead is uncharted waters. For all his faults, Mr Clinton has spent much of the past two years trying to reduce the budget deficit, get the economy into shape, provide universal health care and stop Americans shooting each other.

The only thing he has received credit for recently is foreign policy, but his much-vaunted successes do not stand up to scrutiny: the US has been a virtual spectator in the Middle East peace process, North Korea stood up to the US and won, and the Haitian junta was allowed to slip away.

What gives cause for concern is that Mr Clinton might decide to build upon these 'successes' to save his presidency, rather as Jimmy Carter did when he sent forces into Iran to resolve the hostage crisis. If Mr Clinton makes a stupid move, people in many countries will suffer. Alternatively, Mr Clinton might try to beat the gridlock in Washington with a bipartisan approach to foreign policy, which means the most fickle of voters would have a growing impact on such complex issues as relations with China and trade frictions with Japan. All this is speculative, but the omens are not good.